Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dragonfly (pages 8-9)


The next Dragonfly poem shares a theme with the poem I posted on 15 February, specifically the Good Friday crucifixion thing. When I wrote that poem for Arturo Islas in Texas, where I was visiting, I had read in the San Antonio newspaper that a re-enaction of Christ's crucifixion was to take place on that day, Good Friday — an event that also occurs in various locations in the Philippines, much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church, which disapproves of these voluntary crucifixions.


Crosses


In the ambulance, streets
unrolled through rear windows pulsing
to the siren. Plastic tubes
sprouting from both arms,
I drifted with that thurifer, memory,

recalled Stations of the Cross
one Friday when I was six,
and Mama whispering in Our Lady
of Antipolo church in Manila, "See that old woman
over there — near St. Jude? That's

Aleng Tosang. Last year, she walked on her knees
from Jerusalem to Calvary."
I mixed up calvary with cavalry then:
bearded men with muskets ride horses round
wooden crosses on a hill.

I had already discovered in Tatay's sala
a large and dusty book with drawings
of men in some dark wood, their chests slit,
loose entrails like gutted fish.
Every year, when the saints would hide

their faces under purple cloth,
penitentes in black hoods walked the streets
on parade, scourging themselves
with whips of knotted Manila hemp.
And Sister Mary Helena

told us in the fourth grade about
an American chaplain who said Mass daily
in a North Korean POW camp.
For wine a raisin soaked in water,
then squeezed into a thimble.


Page 8






She called our bodies her temples
of the Holy Ghost.
We saw snapshots
of Christians in China,
nailed on huge wooden ideographs,
and I remember I prayed, "Me too, God. Me too."

The ambulance is slowing now,
then nurses wheel me, flat on my back.
White hosts in fluorescent
ciboriums glow in benediction. But I'm
remembering last week, I entered

some church on a whim. In the dark
there I'm kneeling to say thanks,
and I can think only
of that cloud of incense
which isn't floating now in the nave.

Of Pasig where Papa was raised,
where friends still nail penitentes
to crosses and raise them up
for fifteen minutes. Of Aleng Tosang
trudging on her knees to Paradise.






Page 9



I hardly know what to say about this poem. I wrote it while I was in the Master of Fine Arts poetry program at Indiana University, probably for a poetry workshop, though it's possible that I wrote it specifically for my MFA thesis. Over two decades ago, then. I was having a lot of trouble with asthma at that time, and the ambulance scene that starts off this poem took place several times. I don't recall specifically if memories wafted through my brain like drifts of incense, though they certainly could have. Those ambulance and hospital trips were often kind of psychedelic, you know?

The word thurifer is a technical term that goes very well with memory trips, at least with my memory. In the Catholic tradition, the thurifer is the altar server — "altar boy" back in my day — or at high mass or other elite ceremonies a priest who tends the thurible — the metal incense burner, or censer, suspended from chains and held in the hand. Whenever, as an altar boy, I was assigned to be a thurifer, I often flashed back to an incident when I was probably four or five and fainted at a church service from smelling burning incense; that half-remembered incident was certainly psychedelic, with fanciful, Alice-in-Wonderland visions I can no longer conjure today. Being a thurifer was quite a privilege, as I remember, and you had to master the techniques of working the thurible, which could be unwieldy because you held on to the chains and not the censer itself; also you had to be a little careful not to let sparks burn moth-holes in your cassock, the black robe. Or on your surplice, for that matter, the white over-thingy.

In terms of craft and technique, I can't really remember any more why I used the word thurifer in this particular context, except that there is something really trippy about IVs and ambulances and EMTs; you just let go and let your brain fly, because people who know what they're doing take over your body and you can relax, let your guard down. The drugs they give you ain't bad, either . . . you can take off into the ether, sail up into clouds, drift into deep high blue. Oh and of course thurifers and thuribles are so Catholic.

The trigger for this poem is Philippine Catholicism's sometime convergence of religion and violence, particularly a kind of self-sacrificial masochism in the service of faith. Blind faith, some might say. For example, the custom of of penitents who volunteer to be crucified on Good Friday — with real nails! Or the other penitentes, self-flagellants who whip their backs into a bloody froth before these crucifixions. All done to make up for one's sins. You probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that the Catholic Church in the Philippines distances itself from these activities, saying that Christ's sacrifice is a one-time act that cannot be replicated. It may also not surprise you to hear that province governments practically sponsor these events in order to draw tourists into their areas, advertising the crucifixions and flagellations as brutal yet strangely attractive spectacles.


Although as a child I was not aware expressly of these sorts of religious tortures, I had already had a personal intro, of sorts. In my grandparents' formal living room in Manila, I had stumbled, early on, upon my Lolo's edition of Dante's Divine Comedy, with the exquisite Gustave Doré engravings. I remember being utterly fascinated and enthralled by these illustrations, and feeling at the same time that they were somehow forbidden because as far as I knew I was the only one who ever looked at them, and I only did so when there was no one around. I was particularly intrigued by images of the Inferno and both shuddered and thrilled at the horrific punishments — eternal ones! for pity's sake — especially the one described (and shown) above: where a demon with a humongous sword would slice open the damned, who would then further rip themselves open, tender innards pulled out and exposed to the noxious air of Hell. That one really stuck with me. The lacy, graceful, June Taylor Dancers, Busby Berkeley mandalas of angels in the sky of Paradiso were no match whatsoever, I tell ya.

I had heard, however, of people walking on their knees in penitence. Or, more accurately, had seen them. Not uncommon in Philippine churches to see women walking on their knees from church door to communion rail. So the idea that someone would knee-walk the cobblestones of the entire Via Dolorosa (Latin for "the way of suffering") — starting at the Lion's Gate, the edge of old Jerusalem, and ending up on Calvary or Golgotha, now inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — that idea would not be strange at all. (Probably more the stuff of legend than actual possibility, although pilgrims have walked and still walk the route barefoot, as Jesus did.)

In any case, through chismis or gossip, a person like Aleng Tosang in my poem could be rumored to have walked the Via Dolorosa on her knees, even if she had simply walked it upright, like the pilgrims in the picture above, carrying a wooden cross as symbol of their imitation of Christ's passion.

Without a doubt, there's an element here of heroism, of hero worship. Aleng Tosang would be considered a hero. And think of Ruben Enaje, pictured above being raised on a cross and featured in this Reuters video; he has been crucified for 22 consecutive Good Fridays. Twenty-two! That's a superhero record, don't you think? Not just in the Philippines, but anywhere — even in the USA.

My fourth-grade teacher in the US, Sister Mary Helena, did tell us the story of the unnamed US Army Chaplain in a POW camp who hoarded raisins (maybe from the Red Cross) to make thimblefuls of altar wine so he could perform his duty to celebrate mass; Sister called him a hero of the first order. Catholic tradition has many heroes: saints, angels, and especially martyrs. Kids in Catholic grade schools — in whatever schools! — they all want to be heroes too. I'm not the only person raised Catholic who, as a kid, wished to be a martyr.

Now perhaps I'm oversimplifying, but I gotta admit I wonder if the Good Friday penitentes in the Philippines are pursuing that same desire to be a hero, pushed to obsessive lengths. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying the penitentes are inauthentic. I'm sure all of them believe fully in what they are doing. No one could do what they do without such amazingly strong belief, don't you think?

The little Catholic school kid inside me yearns for a taste of their power, their heart. The speaker in the poem — well, really me, on several levels — we both wish for the ability to have that certitude of faith, that strength of resolution, that keen courage in one's belief. All I can say is amen to that, sisters and brothers. Amen to that.


DRAGONFLYFIRSTCONTENTSPREVIOUSNEXTLAST
   

This poem also appeared as part of a mini-collection titled “A Poetry Reading: In Homage to Carlos Bulosan” in Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: Asian Pacific American Perspectives, edited by Linda A. Revilla, Gail M. Nomura, Shawn Wong, and Shirley Lune (1993).

The illustrations above are (1) Frederic Remington's painting "The Cavalry Charge" (1907), from the Metropolitan Museum of New York; (2) Gustave Doré's illustration of Canto 28 of Dante's Inferno, picturing schismatics, notably Mohammed in the center (Wikimedia); (3) a BBC news photograph of self-flagellants on Good Friday in the Philippines, 2007; (4) a BBC news photograph of Ruben Enaje being cruficied for his 21st time in as many years, Good Friday, 2007, in the Philippines; (5) a BBC news photograph of voluntary crucifixion in the Philippines on Good Friday, 2000; (6) contemporary Christian pilgrims carrying a cross on the Via Dolorosa — image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org; and (7) a thurifer carrying a thurible (Wikimedia).

The video embedded above can be viewed in the context of the original Reuters video story, "Christ's Crucifixion Re-enacted" (March 21, 2008).

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